Washington hit Venezuela’s state-run mining company with sanctions on Tuesday, accusing “illegitimate” leader Nicolás Maduro of promoting and capitalizing on illegal gold mining to prop up his embattled administration.
In a statement, the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, OFAC, said it was sanctioning the Venezuelan General Mining Company, Minerven, and its president, Adrian Antonio Perdomo.
Under the Treasury designation, Minerven and Perdomo’s assets in the United States will be frozen and U.S. citizens and residents are prohibited from doing business with them.
Treasury says Maduro and his security forces control the crime-riddled area in southern Venezuela where makeshift and illegal mining is running rampant. While the government buys the gold in devalued bolivares it’s selling the gold on the international market for desperately needed hard currency.
“The mining and subsequent sale of gold has been one of the Maduro regime’s most lucrative financial schemes in recent years, as hundreds of thousands of miners have mined for gold in dangerous, makeshift mines in southern Venezuela, all of which are controlled by the Venezuelan military, which, in turn, corruptly charges criminal organizations for access,” the department said.
Along with homegrown gangs and criminal networks, there are increasing indications that Colombian guerrilla groups are profiting from Venezuelan gold mining.
The crackdown comes as Washington is trying to economically asphyxiate the Maduro government, which it considers illegitimate. Most recently, the Trump administration essentially blocked Venezuelan oil sales to the United States — a critical economic lifeline for the South American country.
The United States and more than 50 other nations recognize Maduro’s rival, Juan Guaidó, as the country’s only president. Guaidó, who is also the head of congress, is demanding that Maduro step down and make way for new elections. While Gauidó has popular support, Maduro still seems to control the allegiance of the upper ranks of the military — but his access to cash through oil and gold sales is thought to be key to maintaining that support.
The Venezuelan leadership has said sanctions are illegal and immoral and part of a larger coup plot to oust Maduro, who says elections in 2018 gave him the right to rule the country through 2025.
“The illegitimate Maduro regime is pillaging the wealth of Venezuela while imperiling indigenous people by encroaching on protected areas and causing deforestation and habitat loss,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Maduro’s scheme to usurp the National Assembly’s authority and strip Venezuela of natural resources has exposed local communities to dangerous toxins… We will aggressively pursue those involved with Maduro’s reckless illicit gold trade which is contributing to this financial, humanitarian, and environmental crisis.”
Also Tuesday, Treasury said it would be lifting sanctions on the wives of two Venezuelan TV magnates close to Maduro.